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Balancing the Story of Harvard and Slavery

By David E. Kaiser, Contributing Opinion Writer

Harvard University recently released a report on its “entanglements with slavery” and announced the establishment of a $100 million fund to research and redress its historic ties to that abominable institution. The report, “Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery,” identifies more than 70 slaves owned by Harvard faculty and staff before abolition in 1783, various donors who had made money from slavery, and various faculty members and administrators of the past who held racist views. But the report gives much less attention to the ways in which Harvard graduates, faculty, and staff contributed to the end of slavery and to racial progress since the Civil War. As a Harvard-trained historian and former faculty member, I find this imbalance disturbing.

The report does discuss the prominent antebellum abolitionists who had graduated from Harvard or worked there, but it spends far more time listing selected Harvard affiliates who owned slaves before 1783, when Massachusetts abolished the institution. As the data in the report shows, Harvard men favored the Union over the Confederacy by a wide margin during the Civil War. Union soldiers from Harvard outnumbered Confederates by 1,358 to 304, and 176 Union soldiers died, compared to 70 Confederates. The report does not mention that the builders of Memorial Hall, where the names of the Harvard Union dead are honored, did not memorialize those 70 graduates, presumably because they were traitors who had fought to destroy the Union and preserve slavery. The sum of dead Confederate soldiers from Harvard and the report-mentioned Harvard faculty and staff who owned a confirmed total of 70 slaves before 1783 falls considerably short of the total of Union dead from Harvard, to say nothing of the larger number who fought and survived.

Many Harvard graduates, who by-and-large go unrecognized in the report, played critical roles in anti-slavery politics. John Quincy Adams, Class of 1787, became the leading enemy of slavery in Congress after his presidency and waged a successful campaign to end the gag rule against discussion of slavery on the floor of the House. He also suggested the usage of war powers to emancipate the slaves if Southern states seceded. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin R. Curtis, Class of 1829, who graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, wrote a scathing dissent in the 1857 Dred Scott case that upheld slavery and claimed that Black people could never be U.S. citizens. Charles Sumner, Class of 1830, receives a few mentions in the report, but he was one of the leading abolitionists in the Senate in the late 1850s (and was nearly murdered because of it). He later played a critical role in drafting and promoting Reconstruction legislation and constitutional amendments to give freed slaves equal rights.

While the report closely examines the role of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Class of 1829, in the expulsion of Black students and promotion of race science within the University as Dean of Harvard Medical School, it says nothing about his son Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Class of 1861. The younger Holmes graduated from Harvard College in 1861 and immediately volunteered for the Union Army, in which he survived three wounds. Later, as a Supreme Court Justice, Holmes wrote some of the first court opinions protecting civil rights in the South. His 1927 majority opinion in Nixon v. Herndon attempted to outlaw whites-only primaries in Texas. In Moore v. Dempsey (1923), he led the court in throwing out a murder conviction of five Arkansas men on the grounds that the whole proceeding had taken place in an atmosphere of racist intimidation.

The report also omits critical contributions to racial progress from some of Harvard’s most famous alumni. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1903, made vital contributions to Black American progress. Roosevelt’s New Deal provided critical economic help to Black Americans, and his wartime Fair Employment Practices Commission ensured that they received a fair share of jobs in defense plants. The success of the New Deal in fostering racial progress is evident in the bulk of Black voters who shifted from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party as a result. Three administrations later, John F. Kennedy ’40 used federal troops to integrate two Southern universities. In June of 1963, his last year of office, he introduced what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the wake of his death.

Similarly, the report points out that Charles Hamilton Houston, the Howard Law School dean who trained Thurgood Marshall and helped design the strategy that led to Brown v. Board of Education, received his law degree from Harvard, as did two of Marshall’s fellow attorneys in that case, William H. Hastie Jr. and William T. Coleman Jr. — but it does not mention that Felix Frankfurter, a graduate and former faculty member at Harvard Law School, sat on the court that handed down that unanimous decision.

Much of this abolitionist and civil rights history is familiar, or ought to be. But it is in danger of being subsumed by modern efforts to recast history with a blinkered reading of the past. Whatever their intention, the distinguished academics who signed the Harvard report contributed to the now-popular image of the racial history of the United States: an unremitting struggle between racist whites and oppressed nonwhites.

Both white and Black Americans have been fighting for racial equality at least since the time of the American Revolution — which is why we no longer have slavery and legal segregation in the United States. Today’s popular one-sided view is effective propaganda, but terrible history.

David E. Kaiser ’69 is a historian and former assistant professor in the Harvard University Department of History from 1976 to 1980.

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